The Complete Guide to White Sands National Park

The dramatic dunes become your personal sandbox here in southern New Mexico

The world’s largest gypsum dune field covers more than 275 square miles in southern New Mexico with White Sands National Park the centerpiece of this remarkable landscape. Great waves of white roll across the open plains of this 145,000-acre park with stark mountains rising in the distance.

In the morning light when shadows add dimension to the dunes it’s possible to lose your sense of perspective in the endless undulations. In the blinding midday sun when you’re sitting atop a 60-foot dune and the wind is howling you can feel as if you’re adrift on a great bleached sea, sand hitting your face like salt spray from the ocean.

It’s a magical environment and a true natural marvel. White Sands is also one of the newest parks in the National Park Service (NPS) having been elevated from a national monument in 2019. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sands form after the playa in the park’s western end which has a very high mineral content fills with water. When the water evaporates, the minerals form gypsum deposits that get carried away by the wind eventually forming white sand dunes not unlike an ocean breeze sculpting a beach. The park contains roughly 40 percent of the gypsum dune field; the remainder is on the adjacent White Sands Missile Range which the military controls and restricts to the public.

​This is the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert and the bare Sacramento Mountains rise dramatically above the Tularosa Basin. Far from being barren, however, the park is full of life. Even the sand itself is in constant flux with the massive dunes moving upward of 30 feet per year thanks to the winds that shape them.

The park is also home to a range of species including more than 250 birds, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles, and even one fish. At least 45 species are endemic to White Sands including the Apache pocket mouse and the bleached earless lizard. In summer, because of the heat, most of the animals are nocturnal but it’s possible to see the park come alive in the dawn light and just before sunset. Indeed, it’s often surprising just how full of life this pocket of the Chihuahuan Desert is.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Of course, the gypsum dunes are the main attraction and they provide dramatic photo opportunities especially during the golden hours just after sunrise and before sunset. March through June is peak season for the park’s nearly 800,000 annual visitors but even then it doesn’t feel crowded. Also, most visitors tend to stick to Dunes Drive, an 8-mile road through the park so you can easily avoid them by parking and hiking a trail.

​Since White Sands National Park is in a remote part of the state it takes more than a few hours behind the wheel to get there no matter where you’re coming from. But this part of the West seems designed for long drives that go by quickly thanks to the open landscapes. 

​The park usually closes at 8 p.m. in spring and summer (6 p.m. in winter) but during full-moon nights from May through October it stays open an extra few hours so visitors can enjoy the spectacle—and it is a spectacle. The full moon lights up the white sand which reflects the light into the night sky creating an almost spectral atmosphere. It’s an experience worth the extra effort and one you’ll not soon forget.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Plan your trip

El Paso, Texas is 98 miles south of White Sands National Park via Highway 70, the main road to the park. Albuquerque, New Mexico is 223 miles north. Either option is a good starting point for a road trip exploring southern New Mexico which could include stops in the towns of Las Cruces and Roswell and even a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park roughly 180 miles southeast of White Sands.

​In the summer, temperatures in this part of the Chihuahuan Desert can soar above 100 degrees, and in winter they can plummet below freezing. That’s why spring, early summer, and fall are the best times to visit with midday temperatures usually around 80 degrees and lows in the 50s. If you plan to hike bring layers of clothes for any temperature as conditions can shift dramatically.

​Restrooms and visitor facilities are limited. The park’s single entrance has a visitor’s center with a gift store that offers some basic food options (essentially a convenience store) but that’s the only place in the park offering services. In other words, bring plenty of water no matter what time of year you visit as well as snacks.

An even better idea: Pack a full picnic as there are three picnic areas with shaded tables (and nearby restrooms) inside the park. You’ll find restrooms at the visitor’s center and along Dunes Drive and one of the only handicap-accessible restrooms at Interdune Boardwalk right off the main road just before the pavement on Dunes Drive ends.

​There’s no Wi-Fi signal in White Sands National Park and very limited cell reception so plan to navigate the park using paper maps or those saved on your device. White Sands Missile Range is still an active military facility and one of the strange charms of visiting the area is having to wait on Highway 70 if a drill is being conducted in the area. The roadblocks rarely last more than an hour—though they can last up to three—but that can throw off the timing of a trip if, say, you’re planning to make it back to Las Cruces for dinner. (Check the park website for information on road closures.) 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​​Where to stay and eat

There are no hotels or campgrounds inside White Sands National Park. Even primitive backcountry camping is currently closed. You must stay in a nearby city or campground. (See gateway towns)

Things to do

Take a drive

White Sands is famous for its white sand so you must get out in it even if that means just cruising along Dunes Drive which begins at the park’s entrance. But even from a car, you can get a sense of this natural phenomenon’s uniqueness as the road curves through and around the dunes.

You feel as if you’re exploring a distant planet in a sci-fi movie. Although paved for a short distance most of the road is hard-packed sand because the dunes shift each year and the road must adjust accordingly. The park maintains it frequently enough, though, that a two-wheel drive will suffice. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Go hiking

Of course, hiking up the dunes themselves is the best way to feel what makes these white waves so special—the tiny gypsum grains underfoot. Of the park’s half-dozen trails, the easiest is the half-mile Interdune Boardwalk. This wheelchair-accessible trail on an elevated boardwalk makes its way through the interdune landscape where the desert and its limited vegetation meet the barren dunes.

​For something slightly more challenging hit the Dune Life Nature Trail, a 1-mile, self-guided loop through the desert. The hike which starts from the first parking area you pass after entering the park isn’t difficult but requires walking up two dunes with loose sand. The jaunt is an easy way to see the dunes in all their glory and maybe spot animal tracks such as those from a lizard or even a kit fox (however rare it may be).

​For something strenuous opt for the park’s longest hike, the Alkali Flat Trail which begins at the far end of Dunes Drive. This 5-mile round-trip hike leads you around Lake Otero where the gypsum sand begins its life. There’s no shade or water available on any of the park’s trails but it’s especially critical to bring some fluids along for this hike as you’ll be exposed to the heat for at least a few hours.

Despite the trail’s name, you’ll be climbing up and down dunes most of the way. The upside? You’ll probably be all alone. As you walk it’s likely the wind will quickly erase your footprints making the hike feel even more remote. 

​White Sands’ elevation is roughly 4,000 feet which you’ll notice when hiking over long distances or up the dunes. Bring plenty of water and dress in layers if you take a longer hike; the elevation means the temperature can shift dramatically over a few hours and dehydration can set in quickly in the heat of the day. Don’t start a hike if the temperature is already above 90 degrees. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Other activities

Biking is allowed on Dunes Drive and it’s a unique way to experience the park. Since much of the road is unpaved, however, it’s best not to ride a road bike with skinny tires. You’re better off with a mountain bike or beach cruiser with wide tires. Outdoors Adventures in Las Cruces rents a range of bikes including e-bikes with fatter tires (from $30 per day).

​You can even sled on the dunes. Buy plastic saucers in the park’s gift store then just find a good dune for some sliding-in-the-sand fun (and sand in your shoes to prove it). 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Gateway towns

Alamogordo, the nearest city to White Sands National Park is 17 miles northeast of the park. This town of 31,000 serves mainly as a civilian hub for White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base just a few miles outside of town. This part of New Mexico has a long military history with a special connection to the early space program and the dawn of the Atomic Age.

Learn more about that history at Alamogordo’s New Mexico Museum of Space History whose exterior resembles a NASA Vehicle Assembly Building. It’s an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution with exhibits encompassing a wide range of subjects from the early days of the U.S. space program including rockets, astronaut suits, and satellites.

An outdoor exhibit, the John P. Stapp Air & Space Park features many early space-flight vehicles including the Little Joe II rocket, a testing rocket for the Apollo program. Look for one of the museum’s highlights out front: the grave of Ham the Astrochimp, the first hominid launched into space, in 1961.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​One of the largest pistachio tree grooves in New Mexico, PistachioLand is a destination that can be enjoyed by all ages. Located in the Tularosa Basin outside of Alamogordo it’s an easy day trip from Las Cruces and can be combined with a visit to White Sands National Park. The Tularosa Basin has the perfect climate for growing pistachios, pecans, and grapes.  There are numerous wineries and nut farms where you can enjoy delicious wine and nut tastings and beautiful views of the Sacramento Mountains.

The city’s lodging choices are basic including a Fairfield Inn and Suites and a Hampton Inn. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, 15 miles south of town has 15 RV sites with water and electrical hookups and 24 other sites as well as restrooms with showers.

​Alamogordo’s dining options are similarly basic but still good. D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro, is a bar and grill serves steaks, pasta, and salads. Rizo’s Restaurant, a classic Mexican joint has excellent street tacos and larger burritos as well as a few non-Mexican options like a club sandwich. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​The significantly larger city of Las Cruces (population: 113,000), 52 miles southwest of the park has more to offer. In the historic Old Mesilla neighborhood once an Old West border town, Billy the Kid stood trial for murder. The neighborhood’s can’t-miss centerpiece is the Basilica of San Albino, an adobe cathedral finished in 1908. The area around the city brims with pecan orchards and wineries so you can easily spend more than a day here.  

A good lodging bet is the moderately priced, 200-room Hotel Encanto de las Cruces designed to feel like a Spanish colonial outpost with terra-cotta tiles, stucco arches, and a bubbling fountain in an indoor courtyard. Amenities include a pool, bar, and restaurant, as well as several wheelchair-accessible rooms.

We have visited Las Cruces on numerous occasions and hace stayed at Hacienda RV Rsort and Sunny Acres RV Park. I would recommend either for anyone wanting a long term stay or just an overnight or anything in between.​

The city’s dining scene tends towards Mexican as restaurants are apt to do in this part of the state. La Nueva Casita Café is an excellent choice for that cuisine. For something more upscale, with a farm-to-table vibe, try Willow + Blaine whose small but superb New American menu features items like a 6-ounce beef filet, confit duck leg. and beet gnocchi. After dinner, treat yourself at Caliche’s Frozen Custard; choose your flavor (chocolate or vanilla) then your topping, perhaps local salted pecans.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​​En route 

If you’re driving from Albuquerque (or the north more generally) stop at the Valley of Fires recreation area about 5 miles northwest of Carrizozo along U.S. Route 380. Here, when Little Black Peak erupted roughly 5,000 years ago a lava flow coursed through the valley creating a black strip on the landscape as the magma cooled.

​Also, consider an escorted visit to White Sands Missile Range to see the test site of the world’s first atomic bomb. This open house as the military calls it happens only twice a year usually on the first Saturday of April and the third Saturday of October so check the missile range’s website for information.

You won’t see much beyond an obelisk marking the spot where the bomb went off and some trinitite (sand melted from the extreme heat of the blast) that’s preserved under a large glass case but it’s worth it to say you set foot on ground where the Atomic Age dawned. You’ll also be able to say you ventured into the seldom-seen (at least by civilians) missile range.  

​If you’re coming from El Paso, a road trip loop makes for a good three- to five-day trek through New Mexico. Take Interstate 10 up to Las Cruces (46 miles) then U.S. Route 70 over to White Sands National Park (52 miles). You can spend a night in Las Cruces before Whites Sands then another night in Alamogordo. From there, head over to Carlsbad via Roswell (193 miles) where the aliens crash-landed in 1947. After spending the night in Carlsbad visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, another underrated gem in the National Park system. From there it’s only 149 miles back to El Paso. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Fact box

  • Location: Near Alamogordo, New Mexico
  • Total acres: More than 145,000 
  • Highest elevation: 4,116 feet above sea level
  • Lowest elevation: 3,887 feet above sea level
  • Miles of trails and how many: 9 miles across five trails
  • Main attraction: The gypsum sand dunes 
  • Cost: $25 per vehicle for a seven-day permit; $20 per year or $80 for a lifetime America the Beautiful Pass for people age 62-plus
  • Best way to see it: On foot, walking one of the many short trails through the dunes as the sun rises
  • When to go: Fall (September and October) or spring (March through early June) when the summer heat is not extreme and the nights are not below freezing as they can be in winter

Worth Pondering…

Life is not obvious here. It is implied, or twice removed, and must be read in signs or code. Ripple marks tell of the wind’s way with individual sand grains. Footprints, mounds, and burrows bespeak the presence of mice, pocket gophers, and foxes.

—Rose Houk and Michael Collier

Big Bend National Park: Where the Mountains Meet the Desert in Texas

If you’re ready to see what the big deal is about Big Bend, here’s what you need to know to make the most out of your trip

Picking a national park is all about setting: Do you want deserts, forests, mountains, or water? Since everything’s bigger in TexasBig Bend National Park has it all. Cacti-strewn deserts shift to the wooded slopes of imposing mountains before again changing to spectacular river canons where greenish water flows.

Tucked in a remote corner of southwest Texas, mountain peaks meet the Chihuahuan Desert in the vast wilderness of Big Bend National Park. Adventure comes in many forms in this 1,252-square-mile reserve. You can hike to the top of lofty peaks, go paddling on the Rio Grande, soak in hot springs, or look for wildlife amid the park’s diverse habitats. Beyond the park, there are ghost towns to visit, scenic drives, and magnificent night skies—the stargazing is so impressive that Big Bend was named an International Dark Sky Park back in 2012.

As is the standard way of getting places in Texas, arriving at this natural marvel requires a good amount of driving, so get those road trip snacks and playlists ready. Given the logistical challenges of getting here, you’ll want to stick around a while to make the most of your stay.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Lay of the Land

The park has two main visitor centers: one at Panther Junction near the south end of Highway 385 and another at Chisos Basin where you’ll also find the Chisos Basin Campground and the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Three other visitor centers open seasonally from November to April.

There’s no public transport in the park, so you’ll need a car. If you plan to explore some of the backcountry roads, make it a high-clearance SUV.

Getting There

This park is far from everywhere which is part of Big Bend’s allure. Even if you live in Texas, you’ll be up for a serious drive: it’s over seven hours from San Antonio.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to Do

The national park has over 150 miles of trails from short jaunts to multi-day backpacking adventures. One of the best full-day hikes is the ascent up Emory Peak, a roughly 10.5-mile roundtrip hike that affords magnificent views from atop the park’s highest summit (7,825 feet).

For something shorter but no less rewarding, hike the 1.7-mile Santa Elena Canyon Trail which takes you through a steep-walled canyon along the edge of the Rio Grande.

Speaking of the Rio Grande, this life-giving river in the desert offers a wide range of aquatic adventures. If you’re not packing a canoe, sign up for a river trip with a park operator like Far Flung Outdoor Center based in Terlingua. Going strong since 1976, this outfitter offers river trips ranging from half a day to 3- or 4-day trips, camping in pristine spots along the way. For DIY (Do It Yourself) adventures, Far Flung also hires out gear including canoes and an open-topped Jeep Wrangler.

While you’re in the Big Bend area, be sure to pay a visit to Terlingua, a former mining town that went bust in the 1940s. You can check out a desert graveyard and the ruins of old buildings some of which have been revitalized into newer restaurant and lodging options.

Wherever you roam, be sure to leave some time at the end of the day for a soak in the park’s hot springs. Set along the Rio Grande on the southeast side of the park, the hot springs are reachable via an easy half-mile hike and the 105-degree waters offer a delightful cap to the day’s adventures.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay in and around Big Bend

Since it takes a long time to reach the park—and then once there, you can spend a good amount of time just getting around within the park—it’s not a good idea to expect to find a campsite when you arrive; booking in advance is crucial if you plan on camping at Big Bend. Seriously, reservations for the developed campgrounds are required. These campgrounds are pretty much guaranteed to be full every night from November through April and there’s no first-come, first-serve situation here.

You definitely don’t want to be that person who just spent who knows how many hours driving to Big Bend to realize you’ll have to drive an hour or more back out to find somewhere to stay because there are no overflow campsites. And don’t even think about setting up camp in a parking lot or along the park roads because you will get in trouble—sorry ‘bout it.

So, on to the options! For camping within Big Bend, you have four developed campgrounds to choose from: Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village RV Park. You can book your site up to six months in advance, so get to planning now.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re someone who waits a little bit longer before making a move, there are a limited number of sites available for reservation up to 14 days in advance, but again—planning ahead pays big time with this out-of-the-way national park. There are also backcountry campsites and you’ll need a permit for those.

If there are no developed campsites within the park available during the time of your planned visit, don’t assume your big Big Bend camping adventure is dashed. There are still some camping options outside the park in nearby areas like Study Butte, Terlingua, and Lajitas.

Chisos Basin Campground (elevation: 5,400 feet) is nestled in open woodland within a scenic mountain basin. Campers enjoy the views of Casa Grande and Emory Peak. The sunset through the nearby “Window” is a Big Bend highlight. Some of the park’s most popular trails begin nearby. Chisos Basin offers 56 camping sites. Trailers over 20 feet and motorhomes over 24 feet are not recommended due to the narrow, winding road to the Basin and small campsites at this campground.

Rio Grande Village Campground (elevation: 1,850 feet) is set in a grove of cottonwoods and acacia trees near the Rio Grande River. Paved roads connect each campsite and grassy areas separate each site. Flush toilets, running water, picnic tables, grills, and some overhead shelters. Dump station nearby. Campers enjoy birdwatching, hiking, exploring. A camp store with showers and a park visitor center are nearby. Rio Grande Village offers 93 camping sites.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Campground (elevation: 2,169 feet) is a quiet oasis in the western corner of Big Bend National Park. Reservations are required. Conveniently located between the Castolon Historic District, the scenic Santa Elena Canyon, and the tail end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, this small 22-site campground is one of the least-known and quiet campgrounds in the park. There is one group campsite and 21 individual sites. This is a remote campground in a remote park. It is dry camping, no hook-ups, and no generators are permitted.

Rio Grande Village RV Campground (elevation: 1,800 feet) is operated by Forever Resorts and offers 25 back-in RV sites with full hookups. Adjacent to the Rio Grande Village camp store the campground features a paved lot with grassy, tree-lined edges. This campground has the only full hook-ups in the park. Periodically, a few sites may not be available for a 40 foot or longer RVs due to the size of the parking lot and orientation of the spaces.

Your best bet if you’re staying outside the park is in Terlingua about a 45-minute drive from the Chisos Basin. Terlingua Ranch Lodge RV Park offers 8 pull-through sites with electric, water, and sewer connections and 12 back-in sites with electric and water hookups and a dump station nearby.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maverick Ranch RV Park offers 100 full-service sites including 60 pull-through sites. Guests of the Maverick Ranch RV Park enjoy all of Lajitas Golf Resort amenities and activities including the Agave Spa, Black Jack’s Crossing Golf Club, horseback trail rides, and shooting activities including 5-Stand Sporting Clays, 3-Gun Combat Course, Cowboy Action Shoot, ziplining Quiet Canyon, mountain bike trails, and fitness center. Situated 12 miles southwest of Terlingua on FM 170, Lajitas Golf Resort is located between the Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Looking for the most unique place to stay in the Big Bend? Located in Terlingua just across the road from the Historic Terlingua Ghost Town, The Buzzard’s Roost is a collection of three, fully furnished, traditional Sioux-style tipis.

The summer heat is no joke here, so come prepared. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, use strong sunscreen, and bring four liters of water per person per day on full-day hikes. Be mindful of desert critters (scorpions, snakes, spiders): Shake your shoes out before putting them on your feet. Keep in mind that cellphone reception is poor in the park; help is a long way off (the nearest hospital is 100 miles away in Alpine) so don’t go beyond your limits.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Time to Visit

The summer is blazing hot with temperatures regularly above 100 degrees and even reaching 110. The most pleasant times for hiking, camping, and other activities is in the spring (March to April) and fall (October to November). Winter can be chilly, bringing occasional snowfall, but it’s rarely enough to prevent hiking. As long as you have adequate clothing, it can be a great time to visit without the crowds.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Location: Far West Texas

Acreage: 801,163 acres

Highest peak: Emory Peak at 7,832 feet

Lowest point: Rio Grande Village at 1,850 feet

Miles of trails: 200

Main attraction: Hiking the trails

Entry fee: $30 per private vehicle (valid for 7 days)

Best way to see it: Day hikes

Best time to visit: In the cooler months, between November and April

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Big Bend is a land of strong beauty—often savage and always imposing.

—Lon Garrison

Elephant Butte Lake State Park: Paradise in the Chihuahuan Desert

If you like camping, fishing, boating, or just being outdoors, Elephant Butte Lake is for you

Seventeen of New Mexico’s 35 state parks are based around an artificial lake of which by far the largest is Elephant Butte, a 40,000-acre expanse formed by a concrete dam (completed 1916) across the Rio Grande River, a few miles north of Truth Or Consequences and 80 miles from Las Cruces.

The park contains 200 miles of shoreline and over 40 miles of the river valley including a band of marshland several miles upstream of the lake’s high water mark extending almost as far as Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge though most visitor activities are concentrated in a five mile section along the southwest shore and include marinas, boat launch ramps, campsites, picnic areas, and beaches.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is plenty of water and plenty of beach room at New Mexico’s largest state park. Elephant Butte Lake can accommodate watercraft of many styles and sizes: kayaks, jet skis, pontoons, sailboats, ski boats, cruisers, and houseboats. Besides sandy beaches, the state park offers restrooms, picnic area, playgrounds, and developed sites with electric and water hook-ups for RVs.

Elephant Butte Lake is one of the most visited state parks in New Mexico, popular because of the abundant water recreation and the easy access, just a few miles off Interstate 25.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This part of the Rio Grande valley forms the northernmost tip of the great Chihuahuan Desert so summer temperatures are hot and the vegetation includes several types of cactus. The lake itself is named after a strangely-shaped remnant of an ancient volcano now forming an island just opposite the dam.

The visitor center and state park headquarters are reached by State Routes 179 and 195; near the junction, a spur road leads to facilities including a launch ramp near Marina Del Sur and to a number of picnic areas and overlooks. The scenery here is typical of the whole lake—earthen hills sloping quite gently down to the water, sparsely covered with straggly bushes and cacti, many small bays and inlets, several islands, and a higher range of hills along the inaccessible east side of the reservoir.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main shoreline access is a little further north via Rock Canyon Drive forking off SR-195 in the middle of Elephant Butte, a small village offering all kinds of boat-related businesses. This paved road follows close to the water’s edge for 8 miles before turning inland and meeting Interstate 25 at exit 89. En route are many side roads, some paved with facilities and self-pay fee stations, others unpaved and free to enter.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

Before the dam was built the Rio Grande River flowed through on its way to Mexico. In 1905, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation received approval from the United States Congress to construct Elephant Butte Dam and Spillway to provide flood control and irrigation downriver. Construction of the dam started in 1911 and was finished in 1915. Materials and supplies were brought in by rail and transported to the dam by a 300-horse-power electric-motor-powered cable system.

Upon completion, the dam had a 1,674-foot crest, a spillway, and a road running across the top. The channel and the downstream concrete-lined chute weren’t completed until 1922. In 1940, a 23,400-kilowatt hydroelectric power plant connected to the dam began operating. One year later, the spillway was used for the first time and then not used again until 1985 when the lake reached its record high.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most common misconception visitors have of the lake is that the water levels have become dangerously low. However, even at its current level, water in the lake is up to 30 feet and in places 60 feet deep.

During the late 1980s to mid-1990s the water levels were at their highest. It even flowed over the floodgates of the dam. Before then it looked just like it does today. Even at its lowest levels Elephant Butte Lake can support boating, fishing, and many other types of aquatic fun.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fun on the water

Speaking of fun, there is a lot to be had on the water. Bring your watercraft whether it’s a houseboat, yacht, speed boat, fishing boat, rowboat, jet-ski, kayak, canoe, or paddleboard.

Don’t have your own? Don’t worry! There are numerous places to rent your toy of choice for a few hours, the day, or the whole weekend.

Fishing is another popular activity at the lake and a fishing license is required to cast your line. You can get them at Zia Kayak Outfitters or Walmart in Truth or Consequences.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Butte Lake is known for record-breaking black, white, and striped bass as well as crappie and bluegill. The lake is stocked with all kinds of fish including four species of bass, catfish, carp, salmon, pike, walleye, and sunfish.

There are fun landmarks to explore while on the water like Kettle Top Mountain which avid lake-goers use as a geographical reference. Pirate’s Cove is a great place to anchor, go for a swim, and mingle. Castle Rock is a popular . . . well . . . rock in the middle of the lake that people climb and jump off. And, most famous of all, the elephant: a volcanic core that looks like an elephant lying down. You’ve likely already guessed that’s how Elephant Butte acquired its name!

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are two marinas to serve boaters:

  • Dam Site Marina, near the rock formation for which the lake is named, is also within view of the Elephant Butte Dam. The marina has a store and offers kayak and standup paddle board rentals.
  • Marina del Sur is located at the main entrance to Elephant Butte State Park and offers boat rentals, slip rentals, dockside facilities, and a convenience store.

Fun on land

How about some lakeside hiking and nature observing? West Lakeshore Trail is a six-foot-wide hiking and biking trail with a gravel surface that spans 12 miles through the desert along the lake. It can be accessed from six different trailheads including Overlook Trailhead and Sailboat Cove Trailhead. Dirt Dam Trail is 1.5 miles of fully paved road that is closed to traffic making it a safe spot for hiking with children and pets. Use the restroom and pick up snacks first as there are no facilities along the trail.

The Paseo del Rio Interpretive Trail is a one-mile loop, half gravel and half paved. This trail features great views and restrooms at the trailhead and midway point of the loop.

The closest hiking trail to Marina del Sur is the Lucchini Trail, a sandy 1.5-mile loop that can be accessed near the Elephant Butte State Park Visitor Center and the Desert Cove Campground where you will also find restrooms.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding

This park is a prime area for waterbirds and shorebirds. The best birding is between September and May. At the lake, you may see American white pelicans, thousands of western and Clark’s grebes, several terns, and unusual gulls. Some of the better birding spots are at the marinas at Long Point, Three Sisters Point, and South Monticello Point (check for shorebirds, gulls, terns, waders, and ducks). Loons are more common at the southern end of the lake. Birding on land is best from Rock Canyon south where tall scrub and houses with plants and feeders attract numerous species. Check migrating horned lark flocks for longspurs. 

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping

Camping is available in various designated areas located throughout Elephant Butte Lake State Park. Despite its large size, the park has an elaborate system of roads within it that makes the park reasonably easy to navigate—SR-181, SR-195, SR-171, and SR-51 all wind through parts of the park. Inside the campgrounds, visitors can make use of sites that accommodate rigs of up to nearly 90 feet long with a mix of pull-through and back-in options.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park has plenty of campsites to offer guests with 173 developed campsites, 144 water and electric sites, and eight full-hookup sites spread across four campgrounds and multiple primitive camping areas.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert Cove Campground is in the southern half of the park, just north of the Visitor Center and offers 16 reservable sites with water and 50-amp electric hookups. These sites are all back-in access and can accommodate rigs of up to 50 feet in length.

South Monticello Campground is home to 15 reservable sites and even more first-come, first-served sites. The campground is located in the far northern area of the park past many of the primitive camping areas. These sites can accommodate vehicles up to 87 feet in length and offer water in-site, electric hookups, a table, canopy, and fire ring. Some of these sites also offer views of the lake. Guests at South Monticello Campground can also make use of the RV dump station located near the entrance to the campground, the restrooms, and showers located in the campground, and easy access to both hiking trails and a boat ramp.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Run Campground is located next to Desert Cove Campground and has an additional set of RV campsites, two of which can be reserved ahead of time. These sites offer 20- to 30-amp electric hookups and can accommodate rigs of up to 73 feet in length. Some of the sites offer pull-through access and stunning lake views depending on the water level. Each site has a table, canopy, and fire ring. Visitors can also make use of the restrooms located in the campground and the dump station located at Desert Cove Campground. Guests staying at Quail Run Campground will be about one mile away from the lake and a half-mile from a playground. Guests can also enjoy easy access to nearby Luchimi Trail.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just northeast of Desert Cove Campground, Lions Beach Campground offers 25 sites which feature water and 30-amp electric hookups. Many of these sites offer stunning views of the lake and most have a table, canopy, and fire ring. These sites are all back-in access and can accommodate rigs of up to 70 feet in length. Visitors can also make use of the modern restrooms with running water and an RV sanitation dump station located in the campground. Guests staying at Lions Beach Campground can enjoy very easy access to the lake and nearby access to hiking trails. Some of the sites at Lions Beach Campground can be reserved ahead of time, while others are assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Location: Southern New Mexico, 80 miles north of Las Cruces

Elephant Butte Lake surface area: 40,000 acres

Park Elevation: 4,527 feet

Daily entrance fee: $5/vehicle

Annual pass: $40/vehicle

Maximum RV camping length: 87 feet

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

The Complete Guide to the Gorgeous Deserts and Canyons of Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is a long way from anywhere and that’s exactly why folks love it

Picking a national park is all about setting: Do you want deserts, forests, mountains, or water? Since everything’s bigger in TexasBig Bend National Park has it all. Cacti-strewn deserts shift to the wooded slopes of imposing mountains before again changing to spectacular river canons where greenish water flows.

You can find Big Bend right next to the border, close to the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. Texas’s biggest (and bendiest) national park spans over 800,000 acres and holds the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the US. Which means it’s a journey to get to.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As is the standard way of getting places in Texas, arriving at the natural marvel requires good driving, so get those road trip snacks and playlists ready.

Big Bend’s remoteness is one of its main attractions. Isolated and vast, this park embodies what’s so captivating about West Texas: It’s a quiet place where you can easily find solitude and appreciate what it means to be such a small part of our big, beautiful universe.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the last couple of years, more and more people have been making the trip to experience Big Bend’s magic—a true testament to its wonders given the aforementioned distance that must be traversed to get there. In 2021, the park welcomed a record number of visitors: 581,221 to be exact. That’s quite something, considering that just 1,400 visitors came in 1944, the year the park first opened. And that number looks even better when you take into account the couple million that head to the most crowded national parks.

If you’re ready to see for yourself what the big deal is about Big Bend, here’s what you need to know to make the most out of your trip.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Know when not to go

Since Big Bend hugs a portion of the Texas-Mexico border, it should come as no surprise that summers here can get scorching. From June through August, the temperature can easily reach the 90s in some parts of the park. Some is worth specifying because temperatures by the river and in the park’s low desert areas can be around 10 to 20 degrees warmer than areas in the mountains.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Factoring that in, the best time to visit the park is sometime between October and April when the weather is cooler and you can camp and hike without sweating buckets. Needless to say, the holiday weeks and weekends during this stretch (Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, etc.) are when people come in droves, so unless you want to deal with the crowds, it’s best to steer clear of those specific periods.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Speaking of crowds, timing your trip to avoid the park’s busiest periods isn’t just making your communing with nature as peaceful as possible—it affects logistics too. Since there’s limited parking at the most popular spots there are times when it becomes “one-in, one-out” to control the traffic. Who wants to wait for some people to finish their fun before you can have yours?

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose your own adventure through deserts, water, or mountains

Some people refer to Big Bend National Park as three parks in one because of its distinct environments: desert, mountain, and river. While the Chihuahuan Desert covers a majority of the park’s area, the dramatic mountain portion of the park (which would be the Chisos Mountains) runs right through its middle. The river environments, meanwhile, exist along the twisty Rio Grande which marks the park’s winding, southern border.

Fun fact: The Chios is the only mountain range in the US that’s completely contained within a single national park.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When tackling this wide-ranging landscape, you might be comforted to know that Big Bend has not one, not two, but five visitor centers. Northernmost is Persimmon Gap Visitor Center which is the first one you’ll hit if you’re driving into the park through the town of Marathon. Next is Panther Junction Visitor Center which is considered the main visitor center and functions as the park headquarters with a post office. Also at the heart of the park is the Chisos Basin Visitor Center which serves as a great starting point for some of Big Bend’s best hikes. Then there’s the Castolon Visitor Center in the west and the Rio Grande Village Visitor Center in the east.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must-do hikes amid towering rocks

So where should you even begin hiking when the park has over 150 miles of trails to explore? One way to narrow it down is to decide if you want to be in the desert, amid the mountains, or by the river.

For those who want to experience the enchantment of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Chimneys Trail is an essential option. This moderately difficult trail is 4.8 miles total, there and back, and delivers you to the aforementioned “chimneys,” a stretch of volcanic dike formations (if you want to get all technical about it) looking like strange, rocky pillars. One of the coolest things about this hike is not necessarily what you pass along the way but what you can see when you reach your destination: millennia-old pictographs and petroglyphs on the rock face of one of the chimneys.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the mountains are calling your name, then you’re in for a real treat with the South Rim trail. There’s no denying that this hike is a difficult one. It’s 12 to 14.5 miles round trip plus there’s a 2,000-feet elevation gain—but anyone who takes on the challenge will be rewarded with absolutely incredible views of the undulating peaks and valleys of the Chihuahuan Desert all the way to Mexico. Many would agree it’s the most scenic hike in the whole park. If you have enough energy tack on the side trip to Emory Peak, the highest point in the Chisos Mountains and you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world.

>> Read Next: Road Trip from Austin to El Paso: 9 Stops along the Way

Anyone who is soothed by the tranquil sight and sound of water as they hike must do the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. Its low effort and high reward with this one, seeing as it’s just 1.7 miles round trip of relatively easy walking. The views are frankly stunning as you find yourself flanked by looming canyon walls and the river cuts its way through the impressive rock formations. If ever there was a classic Big Bend photo op, it’s here.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See miles of scenic roads and countless stars

Aside from hiking, another way to enjoy this massive park is just by driving its various scenic roads. For example, the 30-mile-long Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive holds up to its name taking you by noteworthy spots like the Mules Ears viewpoint (where you can see two jagged rock formations that jut up resembling donkey’s ears), Sam Nail Ranch (a historic homestead built in 1916), and Santa Elena Canyon (get those cameras ready).

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you have a high-clearance 4WD vehicle you can check out the most remote part of the already very remote Big Bend by driving the 51 miles of the River Road. Don’t get confused by the name—you won’t get to see the Rio Grande along the way but the rough road does generally follow its curves. Remember though, off-road driving isn’t allowed.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargazing is another must-do while visiting Big Bend. Not only is the park designated as an International Dark Sky Park but according to the NPS website it actually has the least light pollution of any national park in the continental United States. Basically, you won’t have to try very hard or go anywhere special to witness the dazzling display but one particularly lovely way to go about it is to spend an evening soaking in the warm water at the Hot Springs and looking up at all that beauty above.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay in and around Big Bend

Since it takes a long time to reach the park—and then once there, you can spend a good amount of time just getting around within the park—it’s not a good idea to expect to find a campsite when you arrive; booking in advance is crucial if you plan on camping at Big Bend. Seriously, reservations for the developed campgrounds are required. These campgrounds are pretty much guaranteed to be full every night from November through April and there’s no first-come, first-serve situation here.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You definitely don’t want to be that person who just spent who knows how many hours driving to Big Bend to realize you’ll have to drive an hour or more back out to find somewhere to stay because there are no overflow campsites. And don’t even think about setting up camp in a parking lot or along the park roads, because you will get in trouble—sorry ‘bout it.

>> Read Next: Explore the Funky Art Towns and Desert Beauty of West Texas

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So, on to the options. For camping within Big Bend, you have four developed campgrounds to choose from: Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village RV Park. You can book your site up to six months in advance, so get to planning. If you’re someone who waits a little bit longer before making a move, there are a limited number of sites available for reservation up to 14 days in advance, but again—planning ahead pays big time with this out-of-the-way national park. There are also backcountry campsites, and you’ll need a permit for those.

If there are no developed campsites within the park available during the time of your planned visit, don’t assume your big Big Bend camping adventure is dashed. There are still some camping options outside the park in nearby areas like Study Butte, Terlingua, and Lajitas.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want to be in the heart of the action but rather not rough it? Then check out the Chisos Mountains Lodge with its simple but comfortable rooms and cottages. It’s actually the only lodging available in the whole park so really it’s either that or staying somewhere outside the park. In terms of the latter, you can find some pretty cool accommodations in Terlingua like cute casitas, unique tipis, vintage trailers, and luxurious bubble domes.

Worth Pondering…

Big Bend is a land of strong beauty—often savage and always imposing.

—Lon Garrison

Explore the Funky Art Towns and Desert Beauty of West Texas

It’s a hell of a drive, but well worth the journey

Texas being the largest state in the lower forty-eight is just an abstract fun fact… until you actually drive across it. A few hours in the RV often gets you exactly nowhere, a frustrating truth until you decide nowhere is exactly where you want to be. 

Driving West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s the ideal outlook for a road trip to far West Texas. Removed from just about everything in the best ways, the hours melt into the horizon as you roll steadily past mile after mile of dry, desolate rangeland and on to “nearby” towns like Fort Stockton. 

“Flat” and “boring,” the uninspired will utter, but this sprawling landscape is also punctuated by moments of natural beauty, world-class art, funky towns, big sunsets, and oddball surprises that are well worth the long journey. Take your time and fall into the change of pace—the vibe, if you will—that each area offers. 

Birding in West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a good chance Marfa is your final destination or maybe Big Bend, one of the most far-flung and underrated national parks—a mountainous dreamscape for kayaking, star-gazing, and hiking. But we’ve got a lot of ground to cover before you get there.

Fort Stockton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to see on the drive to West Texas

Embrace “the journey is the destination” mindset and prepare for a full day of RV travel. Hopefully, you can budget time to stop at these natural wonders along the way:

Caverns of Sonora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Caverns of Sonora

The founder of a National Speleological Society (read: a group of dudes who love exploring caves) once said “its beauty cannot be exaggerated, even by a Texan.” Daily guided tours of this remarkable cave system last just shy of two hours and take you 155 feet below the earth’s surface. Sonora is also a great halfway point between San Antonio and Big Bend. Their RV park offers 48 sites complete with water and electricity; several of which are pull-through.  Due to the presence of the cavern, a dump station is not available; however, there are clean restrooms with showers.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park

A mystical place where the wind sculpts sand dunes into peaks and valleys, Mon­a­hans Sandhills offers a Texas-sized sand­box for kids of all ages as well as a close-up view of a unique desert environment. These natural sand dunes are ever-changing and worth stomping around after a few hours behind the wheel. Not far from Midland, stop here for a picnic or sled down the swirling dunes on rentable plastic lids if you’re so inclined. Entry is $4. And spend the night at one of the 26 camping sites with water and electric hookups, a picnic table, and shelter. Camping is $15 nightly plus the entry fee.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Balmorhea State Park

Time to bust out your swimsuit. Near the crossroads of I-20 and I-10, you’ll find a literal oasis in the middle of the desert: the largest spring-fed swimming pool in the world. Recharge in the cold, clear waters and get a glimpse of tiny endangered pupfish, found only in the San Soloman springs. Open daily, entry costs $7; buy a day pass in advance to guarantee a spot especially on crowded weekends when the pool can reach capacity. Stay overnight at one of 34 campsites. Or reserve a room at the San Solomon Springs Courts, motel-style retro lodging built by the CCC.

Marfa

There’s no small town in Texas with a bigger reputation than Marfa. In the early 1970s, Marfa became a refuge for the acclaimed minimalist artist Donald Judd who laid the foundation for the thriving international art scene the town is known for today. Indisputably hip, even by big-city standards (perhaps especially by big-city standards), Marfa still manages to feel mythical and off-the-grid.

Driving the Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Davis and Alpine

For a glimpse of everyday living in far West Texas, swing through the towns of Fort Davis and Alpine. Both offer easier access to exploring the trails and state parks in the area.

Hike in Davis Mountain State Park. You don’t expect to find “mountain” and “Texas” in the same sentence very often and yet here we are. Take in the rugged landscape with a hike on Skyline Drive Trail or drive the 75-mile scene loop that starts and ends in Fort Davis. 

The Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Comprising 647 acres, Sul Ross in Alpine boasts a beautiful 93-acre main campus and enjoys perhaps the most temperate climate in the state. It is situated in the Davis Mountains and overlooks the center of the city below. The university also has a 468-acre working ranch that serves its animal science programs.

Fort Davis National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the 1980s, some students at Sul Ross placed a large metal desk on top of the very large Hancock Hill behind the university. It’s still there today. Notebooks left in the desk’s drawers are filled with salutations and sage wisdom from past visitors.

McDonald Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargaze at McDonald Observatory. Just north of Fort Davis, one of the darkest night skies in the country allows for spectacular stargazing. Gaze into the cosmos during one of their evening star parties. Otherwise, they’re open to the public from Tuesday to Saturday. 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is the keystone to far West Texas and one of the most gorgeous places in the state. The park’s great expanse and stunning beauty—from desertscapes to river canyons and mountain hideaways—can not be summed up in a few words or even a few days exploring it.

Before heading to Big Bend, be sure to fill up your gas tank in Alpine, Marathon, or Terlingua (depending on where you’re driving in from). It’s also a good idea to bring waaaay more water than you think you’ll need (maybe avoid the hot summer months) and download maps to your phone, as cell service can be dicey. 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping sites are available at Chisos Basin Campground in the higher (read: cooler) elevations of the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande Village Campground (best for big rigs and winter camping) overlooking the Mexican border.

The iconic center point of the park, the Chisos Mountains is the only mountain range completely contained within the borders of a national park. The dramatic drive up to the mountain basin is worth the trip alone just to watch the temperature drop at least 15 degrees from the desert below. From the mountain basin, you can hike to the top of Emory Peak, Big Bend’s most recognizable feature or down the Window Trail to where the entire basin empties out into the desert.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Santa Elena Canyon where you can dip your toes in international waters, wave to Mexico, and hike into the 1,500-foot vertical chasm cut by the river over the eons. The Hot Springs Canyon Trail on the eastern side of the park also offers great views of the river. You can also kayak to your heart’s content.

Drive or hike in the Chihuahuan Desert. This arid, harsh desert makes up about 80 percent of the park but it’s not without its own rugged beauty. Bluebonnets and wildflowers add a burst of color in the springtime. The Chimneys Trail off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive has neat stone arches left by ancient lava flows.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend’s ultra-remote location, free and clear of any light pollution, makes it one of the best places in the country to stargaze. In fact, it’s the darkest national park in the lower 48. The park occasionally hosts star parties or moonlit walks led by rangers.

Your only option for eating and for drinks in the park is The Chisos Mountain Lodge restaurant and patio has an early morning breakfast buffet and stays open until 9 pm for dinner. There are three locations to buy basic supplies within the park but if you’re planning to stay longer than an afternoon pack in supplies from the grocery store in Alpine or other nearby towns.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

The 5 Most Spectacular Deserts in the US and Canada

This article takes a look at the four major deserts of the southwestern US and one in Western Canada

People may often think of deserts as hot places; however, some deserts can be quite cold. We have put together a list of some of the most incredible deserts in the US and Canada proving that they can be diverse places.

The Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mojave Desert

The Mojave Desert is in the southwestern United States primarily within southeastern California and southern Nevada and occupies 47,877 square miles. Small areas also extend into southwestern Utah and northwestern Arizona. The Mojave receives less than 2 inches of precipitation every year which makes this desert the driest in North America. The hottest temperature recorded here is 134 degrees.

The Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Across its wide expanse, the Mojave Desert experiences a significant change in elevation. The highest point located here is the Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet above sea level. In contrast, the lowest point is Death Valley, at 282 feet below sea level. One of the most famous features of this desert is the Joshua Tree which is native to the Mojave. The Mojave is also home to the stunning Joshua Tree National Park and Valley of Fire State Park plus many unique towns and museums.

The Mojave Desert at Keys View in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths, old mines, and ranches. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View.

The Sonoran Desert in Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran Desert covers large parts of the southwestern United States in Arizona and California and northwestern Mexico. It covers an area of around 100,000 square miles bordering the Mojave Desert, the Peninsular Ranges, and the Colorado Plateau. The lowest point in the Sonoran Desert is the Salton Sea which is 226 feet below sea level and has a higher salinity level than the Pacific Ocean. Other sources of water for this desert include the Colorado and Gila Rivers.

The Sonoran Desert in Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sonoran Desert is a beautiful landscape brimming with endemic fauna and flora including the Saguaro and Organ Pipe cacti. The Saguaro can reach over 60 feet in height and grows branches from its main trunk resembling human arms. Its flowers are pollinated by bats, bees, and white-winged doves. Instead of growing with one massive trunk like the saguaro, the many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground. Their fruit, like a saguaro, mature in July and have red pulp and small seeds.

The Sonoran Desert in Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area is also rich in culture with many Native American tribes calling the area home plus cities such as Phoenix and Tucson. Attractions include national parks such as Saguaro and Organ Pipe, state parks including Anza-Borrego and Lost Dutchman, and wildlife refuges such as the Kofa and Cabeza Prieta.

Saguaro National Park protects and preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor and mountains.  Saguaro is actually two parks separated by the city of Tucson: the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District.

The Sonoran Desert in Anza-Borrego State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast the Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake. This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. With its multiple stems, the cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ—you can almost hear them serenading the desert.

The Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chihuahuan Desert

The Chihuahuan Desert runs between the US and Mexico and is comprised of an area of 139,769 square miles. The majority of this desert is located in Mexico. On the US side, it can be found in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

The Chihuahuan Desert in Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Chihuahuan Desert has a unique and ever-changing landscape. Its highest point is measured at 12,139 feet above sea level while its lowest point is at 1,969 feet above sea level but the vast majority of this desert lies at elevations between 3,500 and 5,000 feet. Although an arid desert, it is home to numerous plant and animal species including prickly pear cactus, agave, creosote bush, and yucca. Approximately 800,000 acres of this desert are protected by the Big Bend National Park. The Rio Grande River crosses the Chihuahuan Desert providing a much-needed source of water before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

Located in southwest Texas, Big Bend National Park can be wonderfully warm in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer offering year-round access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the state. Big Bend is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains and it’s where you’ll find the Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cliff canyon carved by the Rio Grande.

The Chihuahuan Desert in White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest gypsum dune field in the world is located at White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico. This region of glistening white dunes is in the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert within an “internally drained valley” called the Tularosa Basin. Given its arid climate, the temperatures at White Sands vary greatly both throughout the seasons and within a single day. The most comfortable time to visit weather-wise is autumn when daytime temperatures reach the 80s with light winds and cooler evening temperatures in the 50s. 

The Great Basin along the Fish Lake Scenic Byway in Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Basin Desert

The Great Basin Desert covers an area of around 190,000 square miles making it the largest of the major US deserts. It is considered a temperate desert that experiences hot and dry summers with cold and snowy winters. This effect is in part due to its higher-than-average elevations encompassing Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon, and Idaho. During most of the year, the Great Basin Desert is dry because of the Sierra Nevadas block moisture from the Pacific Ocean. This desert is home to the oldest known living organism in the world, the Bristlecone Pine tree. Some of these trees are estimated to be over 5,000 years old.

The Okanagan Desert near Oliver © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okanagan Desert

The Okanagan Desert is the common name for the semi-arid shrubland located in the southern Okanagan Valley in British Columbia and Washington. It is centered around the city of Osoyoos and is the only semi-arid shrubland in Canada. Part of this ecosystem is referred to as the Nk’mip Desert by the Osoyoos Indian Band though it is identical to the shrublands elsewhere in the region. To the northwest of this area lies arid shrubland near Kamloops.

Skaha Lake in the Okanagan Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The countryside is stunning. A ribbon of lakes with sandy beaches threaded between slopes of ponderosa pines, granite cliffs, and vine-covered benchland. The Okanagan Valley is unusual in having been a tourist destination before it was a wine region rather than the other way round.

The Okanagan Valley is the heart of British Columbia’s grape-growing region and boasts more than 130 licensed wineries. An ever-changing panorama, the valley stretches over 150 miles, across distinct sub-regions, each with different soil and climate conditions suited to a range of varietals. 

Spotted Lake in the Okanagan Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The natural world has many wonders. One of the most remarkable is that of Spotted Lake near Osoyoos. It is a polka-dotted body-of-water that looks so bizarre you could be forgiven for thinking you were on an alien planet. During the summer the lake undergoes a remarkable transformation becoming spotted with different colors and waters that resemble a polka-dot design. This lake is also an important spiritual site for the local First Nation Peoples.

Worth Pondering…

Not to have known—as most men have not—either mountain or the desert, is not to have known one’s self.

—Joseph Wood Krutch

The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Thanks to the park’s varied terrain, you can choose between desert, mountain, and river hikes, or hop in your car and explore the park on four wheels

Big Bend National Park has it all—vast amounts of open space, rivers, canyons, pictographs, and hot springs. Located in southwest Texas, the park can be wonderfully warm in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer offering year-round access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the state. Big Bend National Park is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains and it’s where you’ll find the Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cliff canyon carved by the Rio Grande.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park abuts the border with Mexico across a stunning stretch of southwestern Texas where evenings are defined by an orange sky and red canyon walls and where chirps of yellow meadowlarks and the sounds of the Rio Grande fill the air. While such stunning scenes are commonplace within Big Bend, the massive desert preserve remains overlooked among U.S. national parks—it has never surpassed 500,000 annual visitors since its designation in 1944.

The lack of tourists is likely due to the park’s extreme remoteness: Big Bend lies 300 miles from El Paso, the nearest major metropolitan area, and is geographically isolated within a massive turn of the Rio Grande from which the park gets its name. Those who brave the miles will find the journey is filled with natural riverfront hot springs, luminous night skies, and secluded mountain trails. Here is how to make the most of your trip to one of the more underrated national parks in America.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pick the right season and give yourself plenty of time

With its southerly location and exposure to the elements, triple-digit temperature stretches in the summer months are not uncommon and threaten to turn the most well-intentioned hiker into a sweaty, sunburned mess. A better experience is found in winter and autumn but spring comes with the double bonus of long daylight hours and wildflower season. If you do go in the summer make sure to bring lots and lots of water, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat (I prefer a Tilley), and plan your excursions around the heat. Winters can also get surprisingly chilly—averages hover around 60 degrees but can dip into the forties—so dress warmly if you plan your trip in the colder months.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend is among the largest national parks in the United States. With numerous trails, mountains, canyons, and nearby villages to explore; each point of interest could easily yield itself to days of exploration. For the best experience resist making a set plan—allow yourself plenty of time to explore and discover each desert sanctuary at your own pace.

While the paved roads make it possible to explore much of the park’s natural beauty, many of the more obscure sights are hidden deep within the park’s interior on rough, dirt roads. To explore this rugged area bring a vehicle with four-wheel drive, plenty of ground clearance, and good tires.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife and gaze at the night skies

Roadrunners, sparrows, and warblers are among the 450 species of birds found within Big Bend, home to more birds than any other national park. With a keen eye and a bit of luck, you can also spot jackrabbits, coyotes, black bears, mountain lions (known in Big Bend as panthers), and javelina—a hairier cousin to the familiar pig. Sunrise and sunset observations are recommended for optimal wildlife spotting and while the average smartphone may suffice take a camera capable of capturing the brilliant scenery at night.

This is dark sky country. Due to its relative isolation from major cities, this side of West Texas has some of the lowest levels of light pollution in the country. Thousands of stars are visible on a clear night and even the Milky Way can be seen under the darkest conditions earning it a designation by The International Dark-Sky Association. Consider bringing a telescope or simply lie down at night, looking up, and see what appears above.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pass through Marfa on the way in and Terlingua Ghost Town on the way out

The tiny, peculiar artistic town of Marfa is about 100 miles north of Big Bend. Here you’ll find the El Cosmico hotel with rooms consisting of brightly colored vintage trailers, tepees, and yurts. The town acts as a venue for the annual Trans-Pecos festival in September containing a weekend’s worth of art, building, and songwriting workshops, artisanal markets, pop-up parties, live music of all genres, and the tense yearly sandlot baseball showdown between Austin’s Texas Playboys and the Los Yonke Gallos de Marfa.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Travel 30 minutes north on U.S. 90 to find the famous Prada Marfa art installation in neighboring Valentine, a tiny, fake store isolated within the surrounding landscape and complete with actual Prada shoes and handbags from the fall 2005 collection. Try heading east about 10 miles to watch for the mysterious Marfa Lights off of U.S. 67. Sometimes they’re red, sometimes they’re green, and sometimes they’re white. Visible at night regardless of season or weather, nobody is quite sure what causes them.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Marfa travel 30 miles east on U.S. 90 to the town of Alpine and take TX-118 for 80 miles due south to Terlingua at the gates of Big Bend. The remnants of a mercury mining camp from the early 20th century, the former ghost town has become known for its charming assortment of gift shops, earthy hotels, and its famous chili cook-off in early November. Check out the Terlingua Trading Company for handmade gifts and grab a bite of chips and guacamole and catch live honky-tonk music at the old Starlight Theater Restaurant and Saloon. Spend a few days at Paisano Village RV Park & Inn to further explore the area.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and see Santa Elena Canyon in west Big Bend

At the western end of the park coming from Terlingua, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is perfect for single-day trips. The paved road covers 30 miles of gorgeous desert scenery including stops at landmarks such as Sotol Vista, Tuff Canyon, and Mule Ears. The road ends at Santa Elena, one of the numerous river canyons within Big Bend.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour the Chisos Mountains in central Big Bend

In the center of Big Bend lies the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range in the United States fully contained within a single national park. Given their relatively high elevation—the summit of Emory Peak stands at 7,835 feet—the Chisos are typically 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the adjacent desert and home to a wide variety of shady juniper, mesquite, and oak. Within the 20 miles of trails here it’s a fairly easy hike to a beautiful view at the summit of Emory Peak. Camping is available here as well at the Chisos Basin Campground. If camping isn’t for you, try the stone cottages at the Chisos Mountain Lodge the only hotel within the park.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Hot Springs Historic District and Ernst Tinaja in east Big Bend

The eastern side of the park is home to Big Bend Hot Springs, a geothermally heated oasis now sitting within the remnants of an early 1900s bathhouse. Once a gathering place for locals, soak in the year-round 105-degree waters said to have healing properties and enjoy unobstructed views of the Rio Grande and into Mexico. A short trail passes Native American petroglyphs on the adjoining limestone cliffs and the still-standing Hot Springs Post Office where mail was delivered every Monday in the early 20th century.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to know about camping in Big Bend National Park

When night falls, you’ll want to have an already reserved campsite so all you have to do is settle in. Here’s everything you need to know to secure that perfect Big Bend National Park camping spot.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are four campgrounds inside Big Bend National Park—three park-operated camping areas with various services and one by an outside company. The three park-run campgrounds are Chisos Basin Campground, Rio Grande Village Campground, and Cottonwood Campground. All require advance reservations booked (up to 6 months in advance) through recreation.gov.

Chisos Basin Campground sits in a scenic mountain basin with views of Casa Grande and Emory Peak. There are plenty of hiking trails nearby, including Window Trail, a popular place to watch the sunset. The year-round campground has 60 sites with access to flush toilets, running water, and a dump station. There are no hook-ups, and trailers over 20 feet and RVs over 24 feet are not recommended.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The year-round Rio Grande Village Campground is nestled in a grove of trees near the Rio Grande. This is the place to go if you want access to more amenities—a store, laundromat, and visitor center are nearby. The park has 100 sites with access to flush toilets, running water, showers, and some sites with overhead shelters. A dump station is nearby.

The small Cottonwood Campground is more remote than the other campgrounds and has fewer services but tends to be quieter with plenty of shade. Cottonwood is a seasonal campground –(open November 1 to April 30) with 24 camp spots—all without hookups or generators.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While certain park-operated campgrounds allow RVs, you’ll want to head to the Rio Grande Village RV Park (operated by Forever Resorts) for a camping experience tailored to RV campers. All 25 sites at Rio Grande Village have full hook-ups—water, electrical, and sewer—and are built for RVs. The campground sits adjacent to the Rio Grande Village Store and allows pets. For reservations, call 432-477-2293.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 801,163 acres

Date Established: June 12, 1944

Location: Southwest Texas

Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: Big Bend was named for the prominent bend of the Rio Grande River that runs through it along with the United States and Mexico border.  

Did you know? Big Bend has more species of scorpions (14) than any other national park, including some species that have been found nowhere else in the world.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Big Bend is a land of strong beauty—often savage and always imposing.

—Lon Garrison

A Cool Oasis in the West Texas Desert

Dive into the crystal-clear water of the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool

In July, on a 100-degree day in the desert, 562 miles west of Houston, the San Solomon Springs Pool at Balmorhea State Park in Far West Texas, is a favorite place for many RVers and other travelers searching for respite from the hot Texas sun.

The water is so clear it’s like jumping into a dream. The water temperature hovers around 75 degrees, refreshingly cool in the heat of the summer and comfortably warm in winter. It is, in the opinion of many, the best swimming hole on Earth.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Set against the Davis Mountains where the Chihuahuan Desert transitions into the low, flat Permian Basin, the San Solomon complex of springs gush out 15 million gallons of artesian water every day, feeding a canal system that runs to nearby farms and the town of Balmorhea, 4 miles away.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the mid-1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built walls around the desert marsh to create the pool. Today, more than 200,000 people stop by every year to swim with fish, waterfowl, and amphibians.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The CCC-era structure is the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. More than 15 million gallons of water flow through the pool each day, gushing from the San Solomon Springs. The 1.3- acre pool is up to 25 feet deep, holds 3.5 million gallons of water with the temperature 72 to 76 degrees year-round.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several years ago when we stopped by in early spring on our route west to Arizona, we had the park to ourselves. But on summer weekends so many people cram into the park that volunteers improvise parking in open fields.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I always figured Balmorhea was too far away from major population centers, too in the middle of nowhere, to get overrun. I was wrong. In recent years, visitation has surged. For families between Van Horn and Odessa, Balmorhea is the one affordable place within 100 miles to cool off and picnic.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scuba clubs from as far away as Kansas and Arkansas explore the springs on weekends year-round. Fitness buffs motoring coast to coast make detours for a swim.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For almost three months, during the peak summer season, the pool was closed as staff figured out how to fix a collapsed retaining wall below the diving boards.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The closing was sudden and unplanned. During the annual cleaning in early May (2018), Abel Baeza, the manager of the local water district, was directing workers to make repairs in a nearby canal when he heard a noise, then turned around to see the underwater concrete skirting cracking off below the high dive.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 80-year-old pool, like the nearby adobe San Solomon Springs Motor Courts which are closed during a planned restoration, requires constant upkeep. The concrete repairs were an even bigger deal. A dam had to be constructed to hold back water around the damage during the painstaking process.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“There are five endangered species in the pool, and this is the only population left of this species of black catfish,” said Mark Lockwood, the West Texas regional director for Texas state parks.

“We can’t just open up the gates, let the water dry up everywhere, build a wall, and put it back together.”

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In early August, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) announced that pool repairs would begin imminently, with the cash-strapped agency forced to find creative ways to pay the estimated $2 million bill. Apache Corporation, the company doing most of the fracking exploration around Balmorhea, which some locals and environmentalists believe caused the damage, offered a $1 million matching grant through the nonprofit Texas Parks & Wildlife Foundation.

The Garrison Brothers Distillery pledged a portion of proceeds from its small-batch, $59-a-bottle Balmorhea whiskey. Even for a park as popular as Balmorhea, getting things done these days requires the governmental equivalent of a GoFundMe campaign.

This project is only one of the three major developments underway at Balmorhea State Park. Renovations to the San Solomon Springs Courts and campgrounds have been ongoing since 2017. Once these projects have completed, visitors to Balmorhea will have an enhanced park experience at West Texas’ most treasured oasis.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF) has established a fund to accept donations towards the structural repairs that are needed to reopen the pool. These donations will help ensure that Texans can continue to enjoy this historic spring-fed swimming pool and unique West Texas destination for generations to come.

The park remains open for day-use only with limited facilities.

The restoration of the San Solomon Springs Motor Courts should be finished by spring. The fallen wall in the pool should be repaired any day now. I’m standing by.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another sunny 70 degree fall or spring day with little wind will do just fine. Odds are, we’ll have the park all to ourselves.

If you wait until next summer, y’all will be waiting in line with the rest of y’all.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

No matter how far we may wander, Texas lingers with us, coloring our perceptions of the world.

—Elmer Kelto